Saturday, July 30, 2011

Survey Says...

Over the past few months I've been running weekly polls in the right sidebar. The questions are generally random. If anything joins them together it's that the results are uncertain and that the answers are subjective, with no right or wrong results. My motivation for posting them is simply curiosity.

Below are the results of all polls so far along with my scattered impressions. My hope is that they can be a resource for photo researchers and demographers in the future. Either that or just another useless turd floating down the blog-stream into oblivion. Which will it be? Hmm, sounds like a good poll topic...

My vote: Colberg
Predicted winner: Johnston
Actual winner: Soth

Almost four years after retiring his popular blog, Soth still wields considerable weight online.

My vote: Yes
Predicted winner: No
Actual winner: No

C'mon people, information wants to be free. These haven't seen the light of day yet but it seems only a matter of time.

My vote: Form
Predicted winner: Content
Actual winner: Form

This poll comes from the Wingogrand quote: “Every photograph is a battle of form versus content. The good ones are on the border of failure.” And from the Wonder Twins: "Photography Activate! Form of..." Personally I tend to shoot for form over content, but against my better judgement.

My vote: Arbus
Predicted winner: Winogrand
Actual winner: Winogrand

This poll was meant to get at the root of documentary process. When recording an event of great personal significance, which type of photo will be most meaningful to future viewers? Portraits (Arbus) or Moments (Winogrand)? I'm still torn. As pure photographs I think nothing compares to Winogrand, but as penetrating records of fact maybe it's Arbus? Friedlander was just thrown in to match the poll to the 1967 New Documents show at MOMA.

My vote: The Bechers, Deal
Predicted winners: Adams, Schott
Actual winners: The Bechers, Wessel, Jr.

I think these results tell more about B's readers than about the photographers. I don't tend to attract the pro-Becher crowd. Sure they're overrated but give them props for major influence. I figured someone like Schott or Deal would be underrated just because you never hear about them in contrast to the others who've all gone on to be big players. Maybe 10 years ago Wessel could've been called underrated but by now he is pretty widely respected, so I don't really understand this result.


My vote: $51-$150
Predicted winner: $301-$600
Actual winner: Less than $50

OK, you're all a bunch of cheap bastards. Proudly including myself.


My vote: Mirrors
Predicted winner: Mirrors
Actual winner: Mirrors

A reference to the 1978 exhibit and book which followed. The longer I plug away at photography the more convinced I am that it's all mirrors. I don't mean a house of mirrors, but I think it's impossible to take a truly "objective" photograph. Every photo is in some sense a self portrait. Even someone like Shore whose photos are seemingly as dry and mechanical as possible winds up creating a body of work that is, at its root, about him.

My vote: Your photographic work
Predicted winner: Family albums
Actual winner: Your photographic work

Not only are you cheap but you're selfish. Just kidding. Personally this was an easy vote simply because I don't own many old family albums. Sure they're irreplaceable, but if anything happened to my negatives it would shoot a ten gallon hole in my heart. Then again I guess something is bound to happen to them sooner or later...


My vote: 35 mm
Predicted winner: 35 mm
Actual winner: 35 mm

In retrospect this question wasn't very well crafted. The answer was too predictable. What I want to know is who the heck walks around with an 85 mm?


My vote: 1970s
Predicted winner: 1970s
Actual winner: 1970s

This result is rather depressing. Photography seems to have gained strength steadily through the decades until the 1970s, after which it's fallen off a cliff. Part of the result may be that the 1990s are still too fresh to analyze. I plan to conduct a followup in 2050 for proper comparison.

My vote: Spring
Predicted winner: Summer
Actual winner: Winter

I thought of this poll while shooting in recent summer weeks. Here it is bright and warm and seemingly ideal for shooting, yet the light is dull and listless for most of the day. Sort of counter-intuitive. Maybe Winter is better? The light is active and angular, but it only seems to last a few hours, and keeping cameras out of the rain is a hassle. By the time Spring rolls around I'm usually pretty well cocked and ready to go after a Winter indoors.

My vote: People as subject
Predicted winner: Public setting
Actual winner: Offers insights

I thought of this poll while skimming HCSP, which I've come to view as a representative sampling of current street photography tastes. It struck me that every single photo in the pool uses people as subject matter. At the same time I'd noticed a steady trend in my own work toward shooting less people. It made me wonder, how necessary are people in street photos? And for that matter, how necessary are other ingredients?

Personally I think street photography can happen anywhere, in a private room shooting mis-timed dust mites if necessary. I get the sense this is not a commonly shared view.

My vote: Masturbation
Predicted winner: Masturbation
Actual winner: Masturbation

This is a sort of rephrasing of the Mirrors/Windows question, but when put in sexual terms the answer becomes more obvious.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

5 Tips for Photo Book Collectors

As many have commented, we live in a golden age of photobooks. All around they're blossoming like wildflowers. It seems every day another one is being popped out somewhere or other. I can hardly keep track.

Not only are these photobooks a joy to behold but, as Adam Dewar recently pointed out in The Guardian, they can be a very good investment. To take just one example from Dewar's essay, a copy of Bruce Davidson's Subway bought for £40 in 2003 is worth more than £200 today. That's a 400% return in 8 years, easily beating the S&P 500 which gained only 30% over the same period.

I've been collecting photobooks for a while. I think I have a pretty good sense of the market. I know which books have staying power and which don't, and what separates the gems from the common schlock.

What follows are a few brief tips I've compiled for the savvy book collector written from an investment perspective.

1. Follow your taste

In deciding which books to collect the most basic rule is to buy books by photographers that you like. It seems obvious, right? Yet many collectors ignore this rule or, more commonly, misapply it.

What they don't realize is that certain photographers are more advisable to like than others. As a starting point, any book mentioned in Roth or Parr/Badger (I or II) is probably suitable for liking, as are books reviewed by PhotoEye, 5b4 or The PhotoBook. As a collector's taste develops, periodic lists such as this one can help a person prescreen what they might like to like. In time you'll have a pretty good sense of what others like and thus which favorites might be most marketable.

Once your tastes have been properly calibrated to the general market you can collect away to your heart's content. Just follow your taste!

Sample spread from Andrew Roth's Book of 101 Books. Any book mentioned therein is probably suitable for liking

2. Mint Condition Only

Buy mint. These books will best hold their value if they're kept in shrinkwrap at moderate temperatures and in subdued light.

Most people realize that taking a photobook outside, e.g. to the beach or to "share with friends" is a No-No. Less commonly known is that simply holding a book open in your lap can also expose it to damage. Opening and closing a book or thumbing pages should be restricted to a minumum. If you're curious what's inside a book the contents of most publications can be found online. If for some reason you still feel compelled to open a particular book, perform this act on a library copy.

A small wall-unit shrink wrap machine can be a good investment for the beginning book collector

Ideally the best way to own a photobook is not through personal possession at all, but through a photobook call option. These work similarly to future options in the stock market. The book is kept in mint condition at a warehouse, safely out of reach from potential damage. The option owner maintains the right to buy the book at a certain value at some specified future date.

In advanced securities transactions the book needn't be published at all, and is thus kept in immaculate primordial condition while the option simply values the future idea of the book. But these advanced securities are complex and inadvisable for beginning collectors. Inexperienced collectors should just use shrinkwrap.

3. You can time the market

Photobooks are like fine wine. Their value improves with age but only to a point, after which it may retreat. To recoup maximum investment potential, timing is essential. Keep close track of the reputations of the photographers in your book stable. Generally the best time to enter a particular photographer's book market is early in their career, and the best time to exit is late middle age after the photographer's career value has maxed out.

Premier Grand Cru: Robert Frank's The Americans (First Edition)

The main exception to this rule occurs when a photographer dies or, better yet, is about to die. Photobook values often peak shortly after death for two reasons: 1. The supply chain has been irreversibly broken, and 2. There will generally be a fresh round of hype and nostalgia following a death. Knowing this you can time the market to your advantage.

Predicting the exact time of another person's death is notoriously difficult but it can be made easier with common sense rules. Notwithstanding the inherent uncertainty, two sound death-based market segments exist: Very old photographers, or very young ones who seem hellbent on killing themselves. For example, Dash Snow's Slime the Boogie immediately shot up in value following his premature death in 2009. Collectors who'd studied his lifestyle and had the foresight to invest in his books were richly rewarded.

4. Get it in writing

Since a signature is perhaps the easiest way to add instant value to a book, you should only collect signed books. If your books are unsigned your priority should be to have them signed. If a photographer is alive acquiring a signature is generally not difficult. Photographers can be stalked in a variety of places. Most will sign a book willingly. Others may take some pestering but should eventually buckle with sufficient persistence.

The addition of Man Ray's signature to one of his books can add upwards of $3000 in value. 
In per letter terms, that's an outstanding $500 per character.

The most cost effective signature location is the title page. Note, to reach this page you may have to peel back the shrink wrap slightly and actually open the book. Do so carefully! Make sure the photographer's hands are clean during the signing or, if possible, bring gloves along for them to wear. Make sure the signature is neat and legible and that the ink does not smear. Heartfelt salutations immediately above or below the signature can add value, so take whatever steps are necessary to gain those.

5. Supply and demand

The photobook market works like any other market. Price is a function of supply and demand. The most valuable books are ones which feed both ends of the curve. They are published in limited editions and craved by the masses. You should make these books your favorites and seek them out for your collection.

If a book has a very restricted print run, less than say 500, a little market muscle can significantly leverage value. For example you might want to buy up 10, 50, or even a few hundred copies to create an artificial supply vacuum. Be forewarned some smaller publishers may try to subvert this effort by adding another print run. You should let them know that you're a powerful collector and that you don't look kindly on their action. If they persist, dump the book. Flood the market. Show them who's in control.

A similar strategy applies to any first editions owned no matter what the edition size. Since a first edition can only be published once, the result is a defined and often limited of stock. This makes them very suitable instruments for restricted supply-side acquisitions, on the condition that no further editions are planned. However, if a second edition is planned it will sap your first edition's value. You should dump that book immediately.

Artificial demand can also be stimulated. Talk up the books in your collection. Get them written about in popular journals and blogs. If possible land them on as many Year-End lists as you can. Some people may forget that they like your books. It's up to you to remind them what they like. Remember, demand creates value, and vice versa.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Crisis? What Crisis?

Congress and the President remain deadlocked over a deal to increase the federal photography storage ceiling above the current level of 14.3 gazillion photos.

At current shooting rates the storage limit will be reached on August 2nd. With no deal to extend the limit, the photography community faces an uncertain outcome. Some claim that there will be no room to store new photographs. Others claim that photo taking will continue unaffected.

The crisis is rooted in the recent development of digital archiving. In the film era storage was not a problem, or at least less of an issue. Photographers generally shot images in manageable quantities, and kept files of negatives in various closets and shelving units.

With the advent of the digital age in the late 1990s, the rate of shooting has increased exponentially. Today every single person on earth owns at least two cameras and makes images at an average rate of 10 photographs per person per hour. At that rate the world will exhaust its storage capacity on August 2nd unless the storage ceiling is extended.

Negotiations for an extension have continued over several months, but remain deadlocked in deeply partisan divisions rooted in philosophical outlook. Republicans want to cut current photo taking levels as a precondition of the ceiling's extension. Democrats seek to expand the world's memory capacity. Neither side seems willing to budge.

The photography futures market was slightly downgraded on Monday as photographers rushed to fill the small available storage capacity with their images. In the absence of any extension, the market is expected to become increasingly chaotic as August 2nd approaches.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

If you meet this photo on the road kill it

Have you seen this photo recently? It was shot in the New York subway a few years ago by Melanie Einzig. She placed it on her personal website and in her In-Public portfolio. Since then the image has taken on a life of its own. It has popped up in all sorts of places online, rarely with a photo credit and never with Einzig's permission.

At least one person has put the photo in their personal flickr stream. Another has printed the jpg as a wall decoration. Some people have taken the liberty of adding their own captions.

Most photographers would be upset to find their images treated like this, but for Einzig it's particularly galling. More than most, she is very careful with the use of her photos, and normally doesn't allow any of them to circulate beyond her direct control.

But with this photo it may be too late. The genie may be out of the bottle. Or is it?

I have a simple proposal. Let's eradicate all unauthorized copies. If you have published this photo online, please take it down. If you encounter it somewhere online, send a personal email asking that it be removed.

On the face of it the effort might appear futile. The web generally works in one direction only. Images are like invasive weeds. They don't go into remission, they proliferate. I'm not sure it's possible for an image be removed from circulation, and in fact the eradication effort itself may lead to further proliferation.

In any case there's only one way to find out. Let's make this a test. Please help eradicate, and spread the word (not the image) to others, and we'll see what happens.

A TinEye search this morning lists 117 unlicensed copies of Einzig's image. Let's see if we can cut that number in half by August 1st.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Worst Photo Contest

Many years ago, during my first and only photo class, one of the assignments was to make a bad photograph on purpose.

On the face of it making a bad photo might seem like a simple task. Don't we do that every day? I think for most photographers the bad ones tend to outnumber the good ones manyfold. Most of us weed them out quickly, and we'd never think of showing them to others.

Google Image Search Bad Photograph

But making a bad photo on purpose can actually be rather difficult. What does a bad photo look like? Is it out of focus? Boring subject matter? Poor composition? Misexposed? Scratches and dust specks? Chemical stains? Digital noise? Camera bumped during a slow exposure? Faces cropped? Derivative of other work? HDRed to death? Too slick and perfect? Some combination of the above?

Google Image Search Bad Photograph

No. Injecting a deliberate "error" won't ensure poor quality. In fact if the error is pronounced enough there's a good chance the resulting photo will be interesting. Artists have managed to leverage all of the above mistakes to make very good photographs, photos which have landed in the finest museums and collections.

Think of Miroslav Tichy, whose photos are so imperfect they wind up being sort of perfect. In the music world an equivalent might be a band like The Shaggs. Of course the opposite is also true. Photos which are too slick are often quite boring. Think of Kenny G., or his visual equivalent.

Google Image Search Bad Photograph

I want to see your worst photo. I'm hesitant to define bad. You might think of it as imperfect or as perfect or something else entirely. Any photo that is uninteresting probably qualifies.

Send your bad photo to me (taken by you, jpg < 200 KB) before August 15, 2011. I will run all submitted images together online, then open them up for polling. Whichever entrant receives the most "worst" votes will receive a hand-printed photo of one of my favorite bad images, the chance to run whatever images they want in a future post, and everlasting anti-glory.

This is all in good fun. In a world of best-of competitions, it's a chance to take yourself not so seriously.

Good luck. Now be bad...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The little screens

from Texters by Joseph O. Holmes

With all the attention that these photos have been receiving lately, I thought it would be fun to showcase a similar series by George Kelly. While Holmes focuses on people, Kelly zeroes in on the face-bathing light of the tiny screens which surround us.

Although they take very different approaches to a common subject matter, I think both projects capture the flavor of the moment. They are photos that couldn't have been made just a few years ago, and will probably soon date themselves, as good photos should.

Here are some rough drafts from Kelly's ongoing project:

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Clearing

I've been taking photography lessons this week from Tab's father Adrian. Not with a camera but an excavator, which he wields with the delicacy of a scalpel.

Some years ago he bought a small mountain in upstate Maine. He's been tinkering around on it since then, developing roads and houses. Each year the effort becomes a bit more eccentric.

This summer he's been focused on a steep bank on the mountain's shoulder. He's cleared about 10 acres, flattened them into a wide mound, and built an immense stone palace facing the road composed of huge boulders found around the property. They're carefully layered into two berms encircling a flat area about one acre in size. At its peak the wall is about 60 feet high and rises in two tiers with a grassy bank between the levels. A staircase of flat rocks runs up the center. It looks like a cross between an Aztec temple and a Roman amphitheater plopped into the Maine woods.

Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan, by Richard Seaman

Why is he building this? No one knows. It's not religious. It serves no purpose. Few people have seen it. It's completely original and unconnected to any societal function.

If the Maine temple has any explanation it's that Adrian likes to build with rocks —is compelled to build with them— and he has the time and money to make whatever he feels like. He is completely tuned to his muse, with no outside interference. The closest analogy I can think of is something like Watts Towers or Coral Castle or maybe Richard Dreyfuss building Devil's Tower models in Close Encounters.

I think the lesson for photographers is clear enough. Put the blinders on. Focus on your temple.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Aestas Interruptus

There's an interesting interview here with Julia Dolan which touches on the current Ray Metzker exhibit at PAM. I saw the show a few weeks ago and it's definitely worthwhile. The theme is mostly automotive, but filled in with snippets from various other series like Pictus Interruptus, Sand Creatures, Double Frames, and Landscapes.

Albuquerque, NM, 1979, Ray K. Metzker, From Pictus Interruptus
on display now at Portland Art Museum

All in all it confirmed my high opinion of Metzker. In that bygone era which placed image in its rightful place over concept, he was (and still is) one of the leading practitioners, a photographer's photographer.

Unfortunately Metzker's show doesn't merit headline billing in the museum. As with most PAM photo shows it's treated as sideline filler, relegated to the basement. The main attraction, announced with 40 ft banners at the entrance, is The Allure of the Automobile, a blockbuster traveling show of antique cars. I suppose the cars are ok to look at. They're shiny. They go fast. Maybe they could even be considered fine art in a design-based commercialized sort of way, even if none had R. Mutt scrawled on the hood.

The Allure of the Automobile at PAM, photo by Rick Bowmer/AP

In any case whether old cars qualify as "art" doesn't matter too much. The fact is they sell tickets. Few people will pay $15 to stare at photos in a dim basement, but vintage roadsters? Now the wallet's open. And by the way, while you're in the museum you might want to spend a minute down below with the car pictures.

My guess is that PAM had the vintage auto show on the docket, then looked around for whatever related photos they could find to supplement it. Coming from Philadelphia, Dolan naturally thought of Metzker. But make no mistake, the show never would've happened on its own. It's an offshoot of the main event, just as photography in general is still viewed as an offshoot of fine art.

Philadelphia, 1963, from AutoMagic, Ray K. Metzker

To the extent that it works, it's due to Metzker's extraordinary vision. He's a rare talent, someone who could shoot an old napkin in the right light and make it interesting.

He shot in cities during the 50s and 60s (mostly Chicago and Philly), and so vintage automobiles naturally creep into many of his images. Often they're the main subject. But I don't think Metzker was necessarily after "car" photos, and I doubt he ever imagined his photos would be grouped together under an antique auto banner.

Instead his photos seem more concerned with the traditional problems. Light, form, shadow, serendipity. If a car happened to get in his way that was fine but the main thing was the photo itself. Whether photographing a city, a landscape, a sand creature, or whatever, he shot first and and asked questions later. That's my guess anyway, based on his images.

I don't mean this to sound like a complaint. I was fully stoked to see Metzker's photos. Whether it takes an auto show or an elephant to bring them around I don't care too much. But the show should be a reminder to photographers of our place in the grand scheme of things. In the perception of most, we rank slightly below an old skidmark.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011